By Thomas Walkom, Toronto Star
January 26, 2011
Canadians like to think their country’s interest in Haiti is strictly humanitarian. The reality is more complex. In particular, Ottawa’s key concerns in its dealings with this impoverished Caribbean nation are interwoven with the strategic interests of the country Canada hopes to please most— the U.S.
Not that humanitarianism is absent. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was justly praised for his quick response to last year’s Haitian earthquake. Rank and file Canadians gave generously to relief efforts.
But Canada’s relationship with Haiti goes beyond just helping out.
First, there is a small but a growing economic dimension as Canadian firms set up operations in low-wage Haiti.
More to the point, however, are American desires.
If Washington wants something to happen in a nation just off its coastline, then so does Ottawa.
And what Washington desperately desires is that Haiti stay quiet and manageable.
As University of Toronto historian Melanie Newton puts it, America’s chief aim in the Caribbean is “the containment of unpredictable forces.”
All else, including democracy and economic development, takes a back seat.
This may help explain otherwise inexplicable developments in Haiti’s fractious politics.
In November, the country held the first round of a presidential election. It was deeply flawed.
Perhaps most telling was the government’s refusal to let the country’s largest party, the Fanmi Lavalas of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, take part.
Back in 2004, Aristide — the country’s first democratically-elected president and arguably still the most popular politician in Haiti — was unseated by the U.S. and forced into exile.
Canada, then under a Liberal government, happily went along
While no saint, Aristide’s real sin was his populism. As Gen. James Hill, head of U.S. Southern Command told a congressional committee that year, Washington viewed “radical populism” as one of the two main threats facing America in the region.
So when another Haitian election rolled around last year, it was no surprise that officials used an absurd technicality to exclude Aristide’s party. That’s the way Washington wanted it.
Still, everything would have gone swimmingly for the U.S. if Haiti’s current governing party hadn’t so blatantly tried to rig the vote.
That led ostensible loser Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly to threaten street violence if he wasn’t included in the final, as yet unscheduled, run-off.
Desperate to keep affairs manageable, Washington conceded to Sweet Micky’s demands. After all, who cares which stoolie occupies the presidential palace? On the basis of a dubious survey by the Organization of American States, the U.S. and its friends announced that Martelly should be on the final ballot and pressed Haiti’s government (successfully it seems) to agree.
A more logical response to the flawed first-round election would be to hold it all over again. But that would make the final outcome even less predictable, which neither Washington nor Ottawa wants.
In the midst of this comes the surprise return to Haiti of former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. While his reasons remain murky, what is clear is that Duvalier could not have come back without tacit U.S. approval.
Perversely, Duvalier’s presence makes it more difficult for Aristide to return. That’s because Washington and its allies argue that both are equally divisive, even though Duvalier was a terrorist dictator and Aristide an elected leader.
The return of Aristide, the U.S. State Department says in language echoed by much of the North American press, would be unhelpful.
And indeed it might — to the U.S. That’s the thing about populists. They often do what the people they represent want done. They can be very unmanageable.
Thomas Walkom’s column appears Wednesday and Saturday.
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